When published in 2010, John le Carré’s “Our Kind of Traitor” was greeted as a return to the splendid form of his greatest creations such as the George Smiley novels, “Little Drummer Girl” and “The Night Manager.” The New York Times’ normally cautious critic Michiko Kakutani even called it “the author’s most thrilling thriller in years.”
Mixing his own literary wizardry concerning the art of the spy craft with Alfred Hitchcock’s fondness for innocents dragged into life-altering international intrigues, le Carré created a tale of increasing tension with every turn of the page.
Now a film version has arrived, just in time to take advantage of all the attention the TV adaptation of “The Night Manager” is getting in the U.S. following its successful U.K. run.
This movie also has two other things seemingly going for it: The screenplay is by Hossein Amini, a writer familiar with literary adaptations having penned such works as “Wings of a Dove” and “The Two Faces of January,” the latter marking his feature directorial debut. Meanwhile, its director, Susanna White, is credited with some very good British TV (“Bleak House,” “Jane Eyre”).
Alas, le Carré’s intricate plots and many characters don’t always fit comfortably into cinema’s shorter length as compared with TV’s longform. So here and there you’re aware of short cuts taken and deeper characterizations ignored in favor of propulsive action.
Nevertheless, until well past the movie’s mid-point, tension mounts steadily as several very fine European actors — Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgård as a university professor and a Russian money launderer, Damian Lewis as a British intelligence service officer and Naomie Harris as the professor’s lawyer wife — bring all the white-knuckle skullduggery to vivid life.
Then, curiously, things shutter to a halt. The author’s story requires that several characters shelter in place a while, which is the kind of thing a novel can put to fine use, but in cinema once a ball starts to roll, it’s hard to get an audience intrigued by its sudden static state.
Then too, strange things happen, one lacking somewhat in credibility and another never (in the movie) really explained. You’ll have to take my word on these since both occur late enough in the story that the spoiler-alert police will want my head should I go into details.
What you will enjoy are the actors, in particular Skarsgård as this Russian bear named Dima, a larger-than-life figure at first encounter with ostentatious wealth flowing from his very being and a hearty embrace that masks a man frightened to his very core.
Amini has tinkered slightly with the dynamics of the story’s innocents abroad. Perry and Gail are no longer boyfriend and girlfriend but rather a married couple in a troubled marriage. Giving Perry an unfortunately digression from his marital vows in his immediate past may even deepen and better justify the academic’s willingness to risk so much to win back his wife’s love and admiration.
McGregor does have to dither a bit as he tries to do right by his wife and by his new Russian friend who wants him to carry a message to British intelligence. McGregor, as we saw in “Beginners,” is very good at dithering and he also gets a certain British steeliness that goes unnoticed for a while.
Gail eventually goes along with her husband’s decision to help the Russian and his family escape the mob for asylum in Britain — she has little choice really — but screen time and complexity are not given to Harris to make more of an impression.
As Perry and Gail’s MI6 handler Hector, Lewis, wearing bookish glasses to suggest not all spies jump from airplanes or ski away from avalanches like James Bond, clearly goes rogue when he ignores a superior’s orders in a bid to use Dima’s information to nail a British MP (Jeremy Northam) for influence peddling.
Indeed enough things intrigue you about this very determined agent to be worthy of his own movie, but here again the film races ahead, leaving his backstory and issues to a few lines of dialogue.
Resourceful D.P. Anthony Dod Mantle of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Rush” fame puts the movie’s jet-set locations to very stylish use as there is a gloss yet also deep shadows in its dark views of Marrakech, London, Paris, Berne and the Alps.
White is still a small-screen director but this may have given a tale of treachery and attempted escape a bracing intimacy. The film’s major set piece, where Dima and his family must separately slip the clutches of Russian mobsters and their henchmen, is astutely shot and intercut for maximum tension without any of the showy effects or grand gestures that bring down so many movies of international intrigue.
In other words, “Our Kind of Traitor” does many things well but the feeling afterwards is, unfortunately, one of disappointment.
Opens: July 1, 2016 (Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)
Production companies: A Studiocanal and Film4 presentation in association with Anton Capital Entertainment, Amazon Prime Instant Video of an Ink Factory production in association with Potboiler productions
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, Damian Lewis, Naomie Harris, Jeremy Northam, Khalid Abdalla, Mark Gatiss, Saskia Reeves, Alicia von Rittberg, Alec Atgoff, Mark Stanley, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Marek Oravec, Velibor Topić, Jana Perez
Director: Susanna White
Screenwriter: Hossein Amini
Based on the novel by: John Le Carré
Producers: Gail Egan, Stephen Cornwell, Simon Cornwell
Executive producers: John le Carré, Tessa Ross, Sam Lavender,
Olivier Courson, Ron Halpern, Jenny Borgars
Director of photography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Production designer: Sarah Greenwood
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Costume designer: Julian Day
Editors: Tariq Anwar, Lucia Zucchetti
R rating, 107 minutes